Former teammates Lauren Jackson, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi together again
Three stars have broken Russian connection, will meet Saturday when Storm visits Phoenix.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Storm @ Phoenix Mercury, 7 p.m.
Sue Bird tipped back in her locker-room seat and crinkled her nose.
"You think anyone would read it?" the point guard asked recently of a possible book regarding her, Storm teammate Lauren Jackson and Phoenix guard Diana Taurasi's tale of playing and living in Russia together.
It was an experience that ended with the November assassination of beloved Spartak team owner Shabtai von Kalmanovic, a businessman and former KGB spy. It broke up the trio's overseas link, as Jackson didn't return. Bird and Taurasi did return, but Taurasi has signed with Turkish club Fenerbahce for the 2010-11 offseason.
But they'll meet again at 7 p.m. Saturday when Taurasi's defending champion Mercury (1-0) hosts the Storm (2-0).
"Looking back on it, the team we had, I'd like to put it up against any women's team ever — WNBA, Olympics, whatever it may be," Taurasi said of Spartak's three EuroLeague championship teams that included the trio, plus new Storm player Svetlana Abrosimova for one season.
"We really did have that kind of synergy on the court," Taurasi continued. "At the time, and maybe still, we had three players at the three most key positions at the top of their game. It was so much fun to be on that court."
Off the court was even better. Kalmanovic signed the players to contracts worth four times their WNBA salaries. He put them in a palatial villa equipped with a chef and a baby grand piano so Taurasi could learn to play, and hired drivers to take them anywhere.
After wins, there were cash bonuses for top players or key plays. Kalmanovic fronted shopping trips to Paris and flew in families to be sure no one was homesick through the long winters. He even worked with their agents to have NBA trainer Todd Troxel work with the trio on their skills in 2009, attention Taurasi credits to her winning her first WNBA MVP award upon return.
The treatment brought a smile to Abrosimova's face. She remembered when her former University of Connecticut teammates used to tease her about being from Russia. She played for UMMC Ekatinerberg this past winter.
"They'd ask, 'Do you even have TVs in Russia? Do you drive cars?' " said Abrosimova, who won an NCAA championship with Bird and Storm forward Swin Cash in 2000. "To know that all of these players now play in my country and get all of the best treatment, I feel special about it. But it spoiled some players.
"Without Shabtai, it's down a bit. You never experience anything like that in your life because he loved his players. Every day was something new. He would come to practice and put $400 on the floor and say, 'Let's do a three-point contest.' He was smart and knew how to make everyone feel special."
That's one reason Jackson didn't want to return after Kalmanovic's funeral in Israel. Jackson was already suffering from two stress fractures in her lower back, having missed the Storm's final six regular-season games and a second consecutive postseason.
So, she opted out of her Russian contract and remained in Australia to rehabilitate. By January, she was playing for her former Canberra Capitals, helping to lead them to a WNBL title.
"When I got injured last year, it felt like the end of the world for me," said Jackson, who is averaging 20.5 points, 9 rebounds and 3.5 blocks. "Never in your wildest dreams can you imagine someone you care about like that getting murdered. I kept in touch with everyone and they were amazing — to go and play without Shabs. I don't know if I could have handled it."
Bird remained in her native New York after Kalmanovic's murder, reconnecting with her family. She watched her older sister run a marathon and get engaged. She returned to Russia in January. She had to take deep breaths when visits to the home arena by Kalmanovic's sons reminded her of him.
She lived in the villa with Taurasi, again, helping the team to win a fourth consecutive EuroLeague title. The team wore all black uniforms, tucking pictures of Kalmanovic given to them by coach Pokey Chatman in their socks. Taurasi slipped hers in her sports bra, close to her heart.
"I don't think anyone will understand how we felt," said Jackson, who has re-signed to play with Spartak next winter with Bird. "Because of him, I feel a sense of loyalty to the team."
Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067 or email@example.com
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